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A New Emphasis on Mental Health for Corrections Professionals
By Robert Winters, JD, Professor, School of Criminal Justice, Purdue Global University
Published: 06/26/2017

Mental health

Much ink has been spilled describing, studying, analyzing, and in some cases simply bemoaning the mental health issues facing the incarcerated, as well as the gaps in community-level mental health resources that leave jail as the default option for the mentally ill, in particular those who are homeless. Less effort and attention has been spared, however, regarding the mental health challenges that face corrections professionals. That, fortunately, is beginning to change.

On May 17, 2017, the U.S. Senate referred Senate Bill 867, known by the short title “Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act of 2017,”to the House Judiciary Committee, where it remains under consideration pending referral to the House floor for a vote. The bill, introduced by Sen. Joseph Donnelly (D-Indiana) and Sen. Todd Young (R-Indiana), has five main components:
  • It directs the U.S. Attorney General to “consult with the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to submit to Congress a report…on Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs mental health practices and services that could be adopted by Federal, State, local, or tribal law enforcement agencies.”
  • It directs the Director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services to provide Congress with a report “that focuses on case studies of programs designed primarily to address officer psychological health and well-being.”
  • It amends the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 “to establish peer mentoring mental health and wellness pilot programs within State, tribal, and local law enforcement agencies.”
  • It further directs the Attorney General to coordinate with the Secretary of Health and Human Services to “develop resources to educate mental health providers about the culture of Federal, State, tribal, and local law enforcement agencies and evidence-based therapies for mental health issues common to Federal, State, local, and tribal law enforcement officers.”
  • It also directs the Attorney General to consult with “Federal, State, local, and tribal law enforcement officers” to assess the effectiveness of existing crisis hotlines and make recommendations to Congress regarding any needed changes; to “conduct research into the efficacy of an annual mental health check for law enforcement officers”; and to coordinate with other federal law enforcement agencies to “examine the mental health and wellness needs of Federal law enforcement officers” while including a blanket stipulation to “protect the privacy of participating law enforcement officers.”
Efforts are underway at the state level as well. In June 2017, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) established a partnership with the University of California at Berkeley, the Correctional Officer Health and Wellness Project (COHWP), led by associate professor of public policy and political science Amy Lerman. The first step in the process was a 61-question survey administered to over 8,600 California corrections and parole officers. While analysis of the responses is ongoing as of this writing, some of the top-line data will probably come as no surprise to corrections professionals: 75 percent of respondents reported having witnessed a death or serious injury on the job, 65 percent reported experiencing at least one symptom of PTSD, and roughly one in nine said they had contemplated or actually attempted suicide.

CCPOA governmental affairs director Stephen Walker noted in an interview that the association’s 2013 suicide rate was 19.4 per 100,000, compared to 12.6 per 100,000 in the U.S. population. Perhaps surprisingly, the federal government does not track deaths by suicide among law enforcement officers, and even the aforementioned Senate bill does not require it, although officials of the Fraternal Order of Police asked that such a requirement be included. The bill’s sponsors indicated that pushing such mandates down to the state and local level would have been challenging and likely to delay or completely derail the bill’s passage.

The COHWP is slated to continue in 2020. The survey was the initial step; next will come facility-level focus groups and experiments to assess the value of various mental health programs, and ultimately follow-up surveys will ask participants about the value of programs in which they participated in order to identify the best long-term solutions. Not all the potential programs have even been identified at this point, although possibilities include peer support and stress management training.

On May 8, 2017, the National Institute of Justice closed the solicitation of grant funding applications for research in three aspects of safety, health, and wellness in the criminal justice system, including “the impact of acute and chronic stress on…law enforcement and corrections officers….” The acting director of the NIJ, Dr. Howard Spivak, noted in the announcement letter that the agency is “interested specifically in the use of physiological and neurological measures to identify the effect that frequent exposure to stress and traumatic events has on health and wellness of law enforcement and corrections officers…, especially as it relates to the identification, development, and treatment of stress-related disorders (e.g., post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)).”

This emphasis on biological markers has the potential to one day make identification of mental health issues much more objective and has the potential to reveal warning signs even in those who have not reached out for help. From a cultural standpoint, corrections and law enforcement still often suffers from some of the same limitations seen in the U.S. military during the early years of the War on Terror, as PTSD and the psychological effects of traumatic brain injury began to manifest on a widespread basis. Mental health issues were viewed by many service members—especially leaders—as non-medical, and asking for counseling or other psychological help was seen as “weak,” discouraging many affected men and women from seeking help. If such conditions could be identified by a more traditional medical test, it might further reduce the stigma associated with them.

As the U.S. military’s experience has demonstrated, there is no short or easy path to addressing stress-related disorders in a population that deals with violence and danger on a daily basis. We can only hope that the various initiatives outlined above, and others like them, will carry us far down that road.

Corrections.com author, Robert Winters, holds a Juris Doctorate degree and is a Professor with Kaplan University. He is also a member of the National Criminal Justice Association and serves as a Western Regional Representative, a member of the National Advisory Board and their National Elections Committee.

Other articles by Winters


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